Friday, December 15, 2017

Portraits of the Family

Peter Paul Rubens, "Isabella Brandt," 1620
A lot of painters have made portraits of family. Everyone from Rembrandt to Rockwell produced at least a smattering or more of family portraiture. The thing that I find interesting about family portraits is what these works might be telling us about the family or the relationship between the sitter and the painter in any event. You get not only a look at the individual, you get a chance to see that person through the eyes of someone who knew them very well.

For example,  Rubens painted his wife Isabella with tenderness and affection, and gave her a certain mischievous and knowing look that charms us after four hundred years. You get a hint that she could be a bit of a tease, perhaps, but also rather sexy.
Vincent van Gogh, "Portrait of the Artist's Mother," 1888

 Vincent van Gogh painted a picture of his mother from a photograph, giving us a sense of innate kindness behind her poorly hidden frown. Knowing their relationship the way we do today, it seems a telling image of the artist's mother. She was terribly worried about her eldest son throughout her life, and seems to have suffered greatly. The greens in the painting seem a bit much, but I suspect they were countered by a red that has faded to transparency over the decades.

Paul Ceznne, "Portrait of the Artist's Father," 1866
Paul Cezanne painted his father large in a dark, heavily impastoed portrait, reading the newspaper, as one would expect of a banker and man of affairs. As you would expect, Cezanne's businessman father didn't approve of his son's devotion to painting, nor to the woman he would later marry. In this work M. Cezanne is certainly serious, even perhaps grumpy and it's not difficult to see that the relationship must have been a difficult one. Cezanne had defied his father's wishes and committed himself to becoming a painter only a few years before his made this enormous and forbidding picture.

Mary Cassatt, "Woman with a Pearl Necklace, in a Loge," 1879
Another painter who produced sensitive works of family members was Mary Cassatt. During the late 1870s and into the 1880s she painted numerous members of her family--sister Lydia in particular. They lived with their parents in Paris during those years while Mary exhibited with the Impressionists and was a dear friend of Degas. Strictly speaking, she painted scenes involving family rather than straight-on portraits. Nonetheless, in her images of her sister we see affection and even a kind of awe of her beauty. Woman with a Pearl Necklace is a striking image of her sister during an intermission of the Paris Opera.

Portrait of Bill, 2005

In my own case, I've done some family portraits too. Here is a portrait of Bill Barber, my mother's second husband and a thoroughly admirable guy. Bill was the definition of "salt of the earth," and was the best thing that happened to my mother in her old age. I worked up this 20x16 oil from personal references and life sketches. Someone else will have to say what they actually see in this portrait, but my intent was to show the warmth and deep goodness of the man, making his face that of a man of the land, with the kind of pale forehead that farmers' caps produce. His shirt wasn't gray but I wanted an effect of chiaroscuro with no distracting color.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

When to Stop Learning

In education circles, especially at the post-graduate level, the term "lifelong learning" has become trendy. The idea in educators' eyes is to encourage the eventual graduate to continue to learn and investigate. These days, given the speed of information publishing and the unbelievable volume, it's critical to instill the habit of continued learning. The ideal is never to stop adding to one's fund of knowledge.

For artists, lifelong inquiry and boundary challenging should be the norm. Those in occupations that produce things--"makers" is the current buzzword--ought to investigate as many different materials, means, and methods of expression as possible. For me it's only through that kind of questioning and questing that advances have come in production of art. A new medium may send one off in the most productive direction, or facilitate new work in the medium originally chosen. A new genre may spark enormous creativity. It is the quest that provides the power.

So of course the answer to the question in the title of this post (when to stop learning) is: Never.

Here are few random lessons learned over several decades that have paid dividends and keep coming to mind:
  • "Violate your edges" is a quote from my friend and mentor Bill Whitaker. What he means by
    Bill Whitaker giving a portrait demo, 2005
    that statement is just that you should paint across edges, then correct in order to establish depth and overlap. Without such treatment, edges are too often monotonous, uniformly hard or perhaps poorly-defined, and good edges make the painting sing. (Bill is a wonderful painter whose generous friendship and mentoring have been essential to me. I think of those words every day.)
  • Spend more time looking than painting.  Another important lesson from Mr. Whitaker. A lot of people are eager to paint, to put down the ideas that are coming to them as they study an object or a person and try to translate paint into picture. Guilty. It isn't easy for me to slow my technique, spend time not just looking at something but actually studying it: how long is it? how tall? where are the angles and how do they relate? and so on. Spending the time to understand shapes, structures, light and dark, and all of the other aspects of an object actually shortens the painting time. And it can facilitate crisper brushwork since the artist has thought hard about the brush stroke to be applied. Overall, study of the motif makes it easier to paint.
  • Paint like a millionaire. This one comes from a fellow student of art. The idea is to worry less
    "Secondaries," oil on panel, 2005
    about the cost of materials and more about learning how to use them. In that vein, it's important to use the best materials you can afford--top grade paint, durable and stable supports, and so on. Student grade materials are cheaper, yes, but may not perform to the necessary standards. That is, paint may have inert fillers (for example) that alter mixing properties or otherwise alter paint performance. Cheaper charcoal or graphite may have flaws or lack durability. And so on. A sports trainer of mine once admonished me to buy the best equipment I could afford. It's good advice and promotes learning. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Favorite Artists 2

Once in a while when thinking of artists, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin comes to mind.

Chardin, "Self portrait," pastel, 1771
Chardin was a lifelong Parisian and even lived the final years of his life in the Louvre as painter to the King of France. Although he was a contemporary of the rococo era of painters he was quite unlike them in his own work. In that century history painting was considered the pinnacle of art, but much of Chardin's work was still life or figures, neither considered to be as elevated. Chardin's work was hardly as flamboyant as that of others of his era (Watteau or Fragonard, for example).  Instead he dealt in common domestic subject matter.

For me, one of the chief pleasures of Chardin's work is a sense of quiet contemplation. Whether the work is a still life or figurative, the pictures become a source of meditation and sometimes even wonder.

While Chardin was influenced by the art world of his time and by his contemporaries, he was singular in many ways. Mostly self-taught, he did not absorb the working style of a personal teacher so much as he exemplified himself. For one thing, his subject matter was almost documentary rather than romantic and flamboyant in the rococo style. He painted the interiors of French homes, delineating common objects that his contemporaries generally ignored. He dealt with the world of children and domestics and food rather than romantic interludes of the upper classes. He was an integral part of the French Academy, was quite popular in his lifetime, and exhibited regularly in the Salon during his whole life, although by his last years he had faded into near-obscurity.

"Woman Sealing a Letter," oil, ~1734
Chardin began doing figurative paintings, the first maybe his "Woman Sealing a Letter," when in his mid-thirties and already an established painter. Most often he depicted women and children in various pursuits--blowing a bubble, setting up a house of cards, working domestically, and so on.
"The Soap Bubble," 1735

"The House of Cards," ~1735
"Copper Cistern," ~1735
Regardless, it is the still life work that I find most alluring. Some of Chardin's still life works seem completely prosaic. For example, his "Copper Cistern" shows us a vessel used t hold drinking water for the household. The cistern is a tall copper vessel with a tap, hovering over a mug and a dipper. The vertical composition and muted palette provide a sense of quiet happiness, at least for me.
"The Silver Goblet," 1768

"Portrait of Portrait of Fran├žoise-Marguerite Pouget (Madam Chardin)" 1775
In the last years of his career, he turned to pastels, probably because of failing eyesight. Those works are among my personal favorites (see his pastel self-portait above and his portrait of his wife, right), but they were little-appreciated during his lifetime.

Regardless of medium though, Chardin has a special place in my pantheon of art because of his impressive craft and his humble yet moving subject matter.

Favorite Artists

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Salmagundi 2017 Thumb Box Show

Happy to be included in the 109th Thumb Box Show by our club, Salmagundi Club of New York. The club has actually been in existence for 146 years, since it began as a sketch club comprising young artists and illustrators. This is the club's largest show, hung in both the large main gallery and the smaller one downstairs, spotlights small artworks, some even tiny. Submitted works may not exceed 108 sq. in., or about 9x12, and can be photographs, paintings, drawings, and so on. Three dimensional works are likewise restricted to smaller than 12 in. in all directions.

Painting small is a tradition that has been around for centuries. Think of the small and relatively dark houses in northern Europe during the 17th century, for example. Small works were more commercial and more common because they fit the homes of the time. In contrast, huge works were commissioned for palaces and ecclesiastical purposes (Caravaggio, Rubens) elsewhere. Today smaller works, priced accordingly, are a popular way to collect original art.

"And a clock," casein on panel, 6x8, 2017
Three of my own pieces were selected. Two are 8x10 watercolors and one is a smaller casein painting on panel. One watercolor depicts a restored John Deere tractor dating from the 1940s. I based the picture on a reference photo I took at the Iowa State Fair in August this year. The other 8x10 watercolor is based on reference pictures accessed online. Each was posted here previously (see the links below). The third painting is a 6x8 casein on panel, a still life of my studio work table, painted in morning light.

The show opened yesterday and runs until January in both galleries. Open to the public.

Related posts:
Two Tractors in Watercolor
Fall Sketching

Friday, December 01, 2017

Studio 405 Open for Classes

Mainframe Studios is now about three months old. The building opened for occupancy the first week in August. So far the top floor, ground floor and lower level are open and all of the studio spaces are leased. My floor has over 60 artists and eventually the second and third floors will be similarly occupied. There are painters, ceramicists, photographers, a recording studio, and other less common disciplines including string art.

Office corner of Studio 405. Silverpoint drawings on display.
As part of its commitment, the management has been working hard to promote the studios and artists. Since opening in late summer, there have been two "open studio" events welcoming the general public (a third planned for about a week from now) and probably four or five private events for groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Meredith Publications. The public interest in the building and artists seems on the rise.

Wider view of the studio entrance.
My own studio continues to evolve. Besides setting it up as a work space, we've made the studio into a quasi-gallery. There are paintings, metalpoint drawings, and watercolor paintings available for sale. These are a few pictures.

Having more space will allow me to begin taking students individually or in small groups. One group will be starting this month, with more classes currently on the drawing board (literally!).

So if you live in Iowa or happen to be in Des Moines for some reason, feel free to stop in. If I'm working but welcome visitors, the door will be open.
Studio from the doorway.

Studio 405
Studio 405 Again

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Digital Dailies

Most mornings my first hour after waking involves cruising the world news sites and having a cup or two of coffee. Many times a news story or a news photo will trigger an urge to sketch. Over the past several months and several political controversies in this country, some of those sketches were worth keeping. Here are a few.

Senator Mitch McConnell hasn't seemed very happy these last six or seven months. The multiple failures of legislative initiatives as well as rumored feuding with the White House has made things more than a little uncomfortable, judging by the expressions I've seen. He has one of the most interesting and expressive faces in the Congress. In this particular sketch I was prompted by a sense of false happiness I thought was present.

Not everyone in the political news has seemed unhappy. A few (mostly in the opposition to the
current leadership in the legislative and executive branches) have seemed positively gleeful. One fellow, Mr. Mueller (the Special Prosecutor) has simply looked determined and solid, at least in the press. There is a visual hint of a firm integrity in most of the images I've seen online, which I tried to capture in this digital sketch, done with Sketchbook, as are the others.

Finally, this is an individual who is being prosecuted by the Grand Jury empaneled by Mr. Mueller. Mr. Manafort's image over the past months has always seems very smooth, very carefully managed. And from the sound of it his personal and professional affairs were very carefully managed as well. Little has come forward yet except charges, but the indictment only came a few weeks ago and he has pled not guilty.

Political cartooning isn't my forte, but simply trying to see into these political actors is a fascinating opportunity. I'll doubtless do more.

Similar posts:
Digital Head Sketches
Doodles of the Day
Digital Doodles

Thursday, November 23, 2017


J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Eve. Post cover, 1931
This week in America is when we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday that isn't precisely what I was taught in school. It isn't really about those starving settlers and their native friends and being thankful for survival. True, the Pilgrims (early settlers in Massachusetts Colony) did have a dinner of celebration that involved Native Americans, but probably no turkey was harmed, and they weren't the first who had such a celebration in the New World, nor indeed in the entire world. The truth is that there have been feasts and celebrations of thanksgiving for centuries and a number of other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving as an official holiday.

The American Thanksgiving is mostly a family feast day punctuated with football games and cranberry relish. That isn't to say people don't "return thanks" as my grandparents used to phrase it. But our American holiday as we celebrate it was actually rooted in the American Civil War. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to foster unity, issued a proclamation setting the holiday for the final Thursday in November of that year for all states, assuring the nation of its ongoing prosperity, growth, and external peace (he was ignored by the rebelling states). It was a plea for thanksgiving, yes, but also a plea for continued confidence in his government. The Thanksgiving holiday was later set into federal law in the 1870s and modified to the fourth Thursday of November during World War II, as it is today. It continues officially to be a day of thanksgiving for the blessings endowed on a grateful nation.

So the American Thanksgiving isn't actually about Pilgrims and turkeys and all that. To me, besides being a day of thankfulness for our lucky status it ought to be a national day of contemplation, a day to seek common ground and be thankful, a day to unify, and a day to be humble. Why not reach across to others on the opposite side of whatever divides us? Surely we are stronger together. Why not be thankful for the strength comes with connecting to one's fellow humans instead of fighting?

For so many, life is a zero-sum experience: you win and someone else loses. But that is the way we all lose.